Yesterday, as Andy Coulson faced jail, Rebekah Brooks walked free, having been found guilty of no charges for phone hacking at News International despite damning evidence dating back over years.
Far from killing the flame between far-too-powerful media moguls and our government, our elected continue to harness relationships and even take tactics from the News International handbook.
The government is actively making moves to shut down debates that disagree, highlight or attack their reforms and policies, regardless of how damaging this silencing can be.
On the other hand, alliances with media that support and push news the government likes are still very much alive, demonstrating that Leveson did not bring about its end.
“News International last night criticized ‘selective and misleading journalism’ by the Guardian Newspaper and rebutted allegations that reporters on the News of The World engaged in widespread hacking into celebrities’ mobile phones’
The Times, 11 July 2009
The Guardian is “inaccurate, selective and purposely misleading”
News of The World, 12 July 2009
Richard Caseby was the editor of The Sun and The Sunday Times, both owned by Rupert Murdoch, before taking up his position in one of the most senior government communications posts for the DWP earlier this year.
“Why is it that the national newspaper which devotes the most coverage to welfare reform reports on it with such pinpoint inaccuracy?
“Is it ineptitude or ideology? Is it the innumeracy of its journalists? Day after day, Alan Rusbridger’s Guardian gets it’s facts wrong.”
These are Caseby’s words from a post last month where he attacked The Guardian, suggesting it should not be allowed to sign up to the new Independent Press Standards Organisation – a body formed as a result of Leveson, because of inaccuracies over benefits and welfare reforms.
Having given evidence at Leveson, Caseby still feels there is a score to settle with the paper that helped bring the revelation of phone hacking, and government, police and media corruption to light.
It is also laughable that as a communications spin doctor for the DWP, Caseby could attack the Guardian for inaccuracy when Iain Duncan Smith has been reprimanded several times for mis-use of statistics by the UK stats authority.
Whilst he mentioned The Guardian had released the longest correction in history, he failed to mention that this referred to the fact The Guardian reported the messages in Milly Dowler’s phone had been deleted by The News of The World. They had not been deleted, but had been intercepted.
Perhaps, there would be no need for this correction, had the news organisation Caseby worked for engaged in the dark arts and criminal hacking. Indeed, there would be no IPSO formed as a result of a Leveson inquiry either.
And of course, there is this connection to the Murdoch media. Isn’t there some clear conflict of interest in allowing a government spokesperson, who previously held senior positions at the media groups accused of phone hacking, to smear the papers that helped bring the story to light?
In fact, this is the very practice taken straight from The News of The World’s own black-book, as reported in ‘Dial M for Murdoch’ by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman, where it is explained that anyone who was involved in revealing the truth about the NI media organisation’s practices was threatened with smear campaigns, followed by private investigators (in order to find something to discredit them) and rumours were actively begun about them. Refusing these figures the gift of power through jobs in government is the very lesson that should have been learned from the phone hacking trial. Yet, instead, our government seems to have taken it upon themselves to use these tactics for their own benefit, to discredit those who challenge them in order to shut down the debate.
Just as NI attempted to smear the reputations of those gathering evidence against them, our government is now attempting to smear those speaking out against their policies. Caseby is an example of how the relationship between the government and Murdoch media still remains in tact. Here are some examples of how they are extending this tactic to other groups.
“News International attacked from every direction. At the end of July, it’s solicitors Farrer & Co wrote to Mark Lewis threatening him with an injunction if he represented any more phone hacking victims, on the grounds that he was privy to sensitive information from earlier cases……Lewis paraphrased the letter as saying: “You knew too much, please don’t act against us or we well bring the whole weight of the organisation down on you.”
Intimidating Parliament, Dial M For Murdoch
In December 2013, Minister for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith accused the Trussell Trust of scaremongering following the release of new statistics on the number of people turning to food banks for help. Last year, 1 million people used a food bank, a number which has increased more than ten-fold in the years since the coalition came to power.
The Trussell Trust kept record of why each user was referred or required help from a food bank, and the main reason given was benefit delays or welfare reforms.
Iain Duncan Smith then accused the Christian voluntary group of being a ‘political organisation’ and stated that he didn’t believe that food bank usage increased because of welfare reforms.
It has now been reported that last year, a warning was given to Chris Mould, Director of Trussell Trust, from an aide to Iain Duncan Smith, where Mould was told the “government might shut you down.” A month later the DWP altered food bank vouchers so they no longer reported the reason for need – an attempt to hide whether people were becoming impoverished due to the welfare system. Mould highlighted that the food banks could no longer tell who was most in need of help.
This is an attempt to shut down the debate on poverty and the government involvement in rising poverty. The Trussell Trust reported on the reasons given to them by food bank users, and were told they are a political organisation for doing so. The government should be made aware of the effect of some of the biggest changes in welfare history, but it seems if they do not like the answer, they attempt to bring the source of that information into disrepute or hide information altogether. This despite the contrasting record of the Trussell Trust in motivation and use of statistics in comparison to the Minister for Work and Pensions’ own department.
It is also very similar to the actions undertaken by the staff at the infamous News of The World when someone knew too much, or brought stories or evidence against them. The response was always to discredit them, undermine them or at least muddy the argument somehow.
“In April , in the run up to the general election, the Independent had run an advertising campaign with the slogan: “Rupert Murdoch won’t decide this election. You will.” Furious at the reference to Murdoch’s power (or perhaps angered by the suggestion that he would not decide the election), James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks strode into the Independent’s offices in Kensington High Street on 21 April, walked briskly through the newsroom towards Kelner (who knew them socially through his second home in the Cotowolds) and shouted: “What the fuck are you playing at?”
A Murder, Dial M for Murdoch
The other week, Conor Burns, Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, attacked Oxfam when they tweeted out a poster (above) as part of their new campaign suggesting that ‘The Perfect Storm’ was being created for poverty and use of food banks by welfare reforms, benefit cuts, unemployment, zero hour contracts and childcare costs.
Burns called for an investigation by the Charity Commission saying the campaign was ‘overtly political and aimed at the policies of the current government.’
A Charity Commission spokeswoman noted they had received a complaint and said that it is worth remembering that charities are often the best placed to report and campaign on the experiences and problems of their users.
Ben Phillips, Oxfam’s campaigns and policy director said:
“We have a duty to draw attention to the hardship suffered by poor people we work with in the UK.”
“Fighting poverty should not be a party political issue. Successive governments have presided over a tide of rising inequality and created a situation where food banks and other providers provided 20 million meals last year to people who could not afford to feed themselves.
“This is an unacceptable situation in one of the world’s largest economies and politicians of all stripes have a responsibility to tackle it.”
This is again an attempt to shut down debate on poverty and the cost of living crisis. If a government’s policies are conducive to more poverty, then the fault is at the hands of the government and this should be highlighted. Perhaps Burns needs to look at why he thinks reporting on poverty and his own government’s policies seem so inextricably linked. Those falling into poverty should not have their voice jeopordised or shouted down because it makes the government look bad. The help of charities like Oxfam in raising these issues is also important, as they often represent people from the most marginalised sectors of society, who may struggle to have their say otherwise, much to the benefit of the damaging policies the charity is campaigning on.
Abuse of access to money and power
“To save time I just shouted to our lawyer across the room: ‘Hey Tom, how many fingers will this cost if we nick it all?” Tom flicked five fingers at me: £50,000 maximum damages. Well worth a front page and two spreads inside. We got the Mail at about 7pm and set about excavating every word. …At about 9pm we got another fax from the Mail legal team, issuing dire warnings about our ‘flagrant breach of copyright’…We laughed again.”
Wapping’s News Factory, Dial M for Murdoch
This example of the ability of the NOTW to breach laws at will as they could easily stomach the costs is similar to the way our government has set about appealing decisions that have been won by people as they have access to an endless amount of money, time and determination whilst ordinary people, particularly those at the sharp end of austerity measures, do not have access to these means.
The government has taken advantage of this on many occasions.
Last year, when five families took the Secretary of State to court to exempt disabled children and families from the bedroom tax, the government delayed changing the law as much as possible despite David Cameron publicly announcing that these exemptions existed.
The government then tried to put the legal fees on the shoulders of the families, as a mother of one of the claimants explained after the hearing.
“I am relieved that at last the position for families like mine is clear and that following the court’s decision in July the government have finally changed the rules which would have had such a terrible effect on families like mine. My son needs his own bedroom because of his serious health problems. Without that bedroom, we were told he would have to go into residential care. I m sure that everyone can understand what heartbreak such a situation would cause any mother. We have been very disappointed by the way that the government have behaved throughout our case, but delighted that at last the position is clear. We will continue with our appeal, because at the moment the government has an order for legal costs against us, which seems ridiculous to me, given that we won our case and that the rules have now been changed as a result. However, we are so happy that the real battle is over.”
Similarly Jeremy Hunt has repeatedly appealed against decisions on the downgrading of Lewisham Hospital. Lewisham is a well-run and much loved hospital, yet Hunt was determined to downgrade it to offset the costs of a failing hospital nearby.
“A long-running battle over NHS services in south-east London reached the court of appeal as the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, tried to overthrow a judge’s ruling that his attempts to downgrade A&E and maternity services at Lewisham hospital broke the law.”
In a reversal of the situation, over half a million sickness benefit appeals have been overturned for claimants – a figure that was hidden by the DWP. Forcing ill claimants to prove their illnesses at assessments and again at appeals is tantamount to the neglect of dignity, care and provision for our most vulnerable. Meanwhile, the DWP claimed a million sickness benefit claimants were found ‘fit to work’ – hmmm mis-information and a cover up, who could they have learned that off.
Further, the government have acted to stop people seeking justice altogether through abuse of their power as lawmakers to push through changes to the judicial review. We spoke to Criminal Barrister Mike Goold last year about it:
“And another thing, the judicial review is a means by which people can challenge the decisions of executives of the government and any executive bodies. So that can be anything from being evicted from a council house owned by the government, immigration decisions, decisions to be refused asylum, these things can be challenged by judicial review. And the government have, if you’re being quite cynical about this, and I certainly am, the government have an incentive to stop people if they can, because it’s the way people challenge unjust government decisions.”
Lessons do not seem to have been learned from Leveson. Or if they have, they seem to be the ones that are used to mis-lead us. Conflict of interest continues, and in the run up to the General Election I imagine we will see more examples of attempts to shut down the opposing debate.
What is clear, is that government is determined to continue with their course of action, despite how damaging this is for the public at risk. It seems they are more concerned with silencing and threatening their opponents than creating a system that works.
by Kam Sandhu – @KamBass